Hitchcock-a-thon: Family Plot (1976)

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Well. Here we are. Hitchcock’s final film, made just four years before his death in 1980. After an astonishing career of over 50 years it’s hard not to feel a tad emotional now we’ve reached the end. Maybe that’s just me.

By 1976 Hitchcock was slowing down. In the last decade of his career he only directed two films, quite a step back for the man used to churn out three per year. His dwindling energy is, perhaps, reflected in the comedic thriller Family Plot. While it’s a perfectly entertaining flick, it feels slower and lighter than what we’re accustomed to from the Master of Suspense.

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Hitchcock’s final cameo

Family Plot presents us with two parallel story lines. Story one, a scam spiritual medium Blanche (Barbara Harris) and her boyfriend George (Bruce Dern) set out to help an elderly widow track down her long lost nephew for a hefty cash reward. Story two, a married pair of crooks, Arthur (William Devane) and Fran (Karen Black), kidnap various wealthy chaps and demand diamonds as ransom.

How are these two cases connected? And who is the enigmatic Eddie Shoebridge? It’s gonna take a whole lot of snooping around graveyards to find out.

Despite its central mystery, Family Plot is a fairly laid-back film. There are a handful of thrills along the way, such as a high-speed car chase across the Californian countryside or a jewel heist at the beginning executed by Fran dressed up like Lady Gaga, but these are rare exceptions.

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Wants your applause

Instead of thrills, the film’s enjoyment comes from Ernest Lehman’s witty screenplay, especially when it comes to the relationship between the two leads.

Their frank and open dialogue is fun to witness, whether they’re flat out insulting each or making plans about their evening sex (“Don’t start to fret, George, or our waterbed will be no fun at all tonight; as an actor, you should know that fretting will ruin a performance.”)

Family Plot is an enjoyable final flourish, but even at its best it never comes close to matching the flirty fun of To Catch a Thief or the unabashed cheesiness of North by Northwest, even with Barbara Harris’s fourth-wall-shattering wink right at the end.

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T-t-t-t-t-t-that’s all, folks!

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Hitchcock-a-thon: North by Northwest (1959)

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It took nearly 30 years of waiting, but America finally had its answer to The 39 Steps. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman set out to write “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures”. He sure as hell delivered the goods.

Advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant in his last Hitchcock film) is unsuspectingly kidnapped by a couple of goons after they mistake him for a man called “George Kaplan.” After escaping an attempt on his life, Roger finds himself also wanted by the police after a UN diplomat dies in his arms. On the run from the cops and from his would-be assassins, Roger heads across the country in search of answers with the help of his seductive acquaintance Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint).

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North by Northwest might well be the most splendidly uninhibited of Hitchcock’s films. No plot point is too ludicrous, no set piece too big, no innuendo too corny. From the scuffle on top of Mount Rushmore to the much-parodied crop duster chase scene, it’s big and bold fun throughout.

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The banter between Roger and Eve was some Hitchcock’s more risqué yet and he struggled to squeeze a lot of it past the Hayes Code. Yet somehow the censors missed the absurdly phallic final shot that Hitchcock himself called “one of the most impudent shots I ever made.”

Grant’s at his most bumbling in this light-weight lead role, but he’s still immensely watchable as an everyman protagonist. Saint (who’s still acting today aged 89) makes a deceptively cool femme fatale and James Mason has suave menace as the villainous Vandamm. But for my money, the true stand-out is Vandamm’s right hand man Leonard (Martin Landau) whose face displays the kind of villainy straight out of a comic book.

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How does it compare to Hitchcock’s early adventure hits such as The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent and The Lady Vanishes? It depends what you’re in the mood for. In terms of large, blockbuster spectacle North by Northwest is unrivalled in the Hitchcock canon. Personally, I prefer the dry humour of The Lady Vanishes to the innuendo-crammed silliness we find here. But it’s not this is an either/or scenario. Why not watch both of them? And 39 Steps too. They’re all great.